The Mysteries of Fatherhood
Happy (US) Father’s Day!
I’m not a big believer in these sorts of officially designated days. I always told my kids not to worry too much about Mother’s Day, as I don’t believe in Hallmark greetings or a once-a-year bouquet. That’s nowhere near enough. I want deep, daily connections 365 days a year - plus much mutual adoration. Of all the roles in my life, mom is the one I’m most proud of, and least doubtful about (my kiddies may sigh at that last). But I learned my motherhood lessons at the knee of a pro. My own mom was a great teacher on how to mother powerfully. Basically, lessons No. 1 to 100? Put parenting at the top of your agenda.
Fatherhood, however, is an entirely different beast. My dad died when I was three. I have no idea what having a father is like – and no memory of the one I had so briefly. I wonder what life would have been like had he lived. Massively different I think. For me, my mom, certainly for my brothers who sorely lost out from the lack of father figure. He was, I’m sure, a good one. He was a brilliant young academic, educated in Switzerland, emigrated to Canada, destined (everyone said) for great things. With a reputation for kindness. He taught math and education at York University in Toronto before he died. And was busy launching a new college there with big dreams. Thanks to my oldest friend Juliet, whose father also taught there, the University came to pick up my father’s papers last year for their archives. There was a boat load of great thoughts buried in the basement – including an unpublished biography of Einstein he seems to have whipped off at some point between emigrating, teaching, parenting and dying.
The newest father in my private realm is my son, whose first, much-beloved baby is now (already!) 8 months old. There is a very poignant magic in seeing one’s own children make and hold small humans. But this father is also far away, on another continent, so I can’t really see all the facets of the emerging role. My curiosity knows no bounds (and a visit planned this summer will only further whet my appetite for witnessing). I know he will be a natural, for he loves as he breathes. And this girl he has made ain’t taking any prisoners. She will take everything life – and her mildly exhausted parents – have to offer. She is, already, unstoppable (and seems to think sleep is a design flaw).
I shake my head at my fatherhood report card. It makes me a total amateur in the dad department. And yet, it’s long been a central pillar of my work. I’ve plugged fatherhood to every couple, country and company I’ve ever worked with. Maybe it’s the lack I’m trying to mend. I just wrote a blog on ‘Fatherhood as a Leadership Issue’ for FORBES. I’m convinced that if we want gender balance and female leaders and all that other good stuff I’ve been pushing for most of my career, we need to applaud, support and enable a new generation of hands-on fathers. And leaders and bosses who understand the need to gender neutralise parenting, model balance by example, and push men to stay home and share parental leave.
It ain’t easy. Powerful cultural and capitalist forces are still hungrily demanding 24/7 devotion. We like young men with vision, dreams and ambition (I just saw the movie Top Gun - Maverick last night, which is a heavy-duty sales pitch for old school masculinity). So it takes a lot of leadership from older guys to show a new, more balanced take on life and leadership.
Like the former CEO of BAYER, Marijn Dekkers, who I worked with for several years – who used to walk visibly (and religiously) out of the office every day at 6pm saying he was off to dinner with his family. Or Cain Ullah, the co-Founder of Red Badger, who stepped down as CEO of the digital transformation company he built to work three days a week after his second son was born. His goal is for his career not to take precedence over his wife’s, but that they will balance both work and family – together. Impressive and inspiring. (He sent me an update between breakfast and diaper change). One of my Harvard ALI colleagues, Bernard Franklin, used to be VP of the US National Center for Fathering. He knows, more than most, that far too many young black boys (70%) in the US fall asleep in homes without dads. Personally, and somewhat ironically, he then had to prioritise his own fatherhood above his career when his wife died and he had to raise their four kids on his own.
This week’s Economist reports on another variable in the fatherhood stakes: testosterone. (There is also a great book I’m currently reading on this one, by Harvard professor Carole Hooven, called Testosterone – the Hormone That Unites and Divides Us). It is known that men with lower levels of testosterone make for more participative partners at home. Fatherhood itself often leads to a drop in T-levels. Too much of the stuff, and they are more likely to flee the nest. But the Economist throws in research that shows that “a man’s adult testosterone level seems correlated with whether his father was present during his teenage years!” That is startling but makes intuitive sense. My brothers long ago proved to me that men need fathers to thrive. And in companies, I’m convinced that the only way to gender balance is to get men to sell the idea to other men – to ‘father’ them into balance. An idea I’ve spent my career on.
“Ceci explique cela,” say the French.
I would so have loved to have known my father. I suspect I resemble him in many ways, as I type away at my own mini-boatload of ideas which will one day be relegated to the dark reaches of the internet version of a basement. But if I can’t hug my own, at least I can celebrate all the others. I hope you will too this Father’s Day.